Why It’s Important for Parents to Show Their True Feelings

Why It's Good for Parents to Show Their True Feelings

One of the most important qualities of healthy relationships is authenticity – being who we are, frayed edges and all. Being authentic in a relationship creates connection, openness, trust and acceptance. Provided the relationship is based in genuine intent, authenticity means that there is no need for anyone to filter out the parts of themselves that might not make it into the top 100 ‘most adorable things about me’. 

Of course there will always be times to put the woolly parts of ourselves away, but what does this look like when it comes to being parents? How much of our emotional selves should we put away to be good for our children and how much should we show?

There isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t get sad, cranky, furious, scared from time to time. Sometimes these feelings find a decent grip and they stay for a while. In the midst of the heaviness, our kids will be watching everything we do. They might not know the details but they’re smart, and would likely get a sense when the outside of us doesn’t match what’s happening on the inside.

It’s completely understandable that we would want to protect our kids from the grown-up details of the messiness of life. There are some things that their child status protects them from. But there is a balance that needs to be struck.

New research has found that always putting on a happy face might not be the best for us or for our kids. The study found that parents who ‘try to be perfect’ for their children risk lower authenticity, poorer relationships with their children and reduced responsiveness to their children.

 Part of the reason for this is that depressing negative feelings and exaggerating positive ones tends to lead parents to feel worse about themselves.

 Parents experienced costs when regulating their emotions in these ways because they felt less authentic, or true to themselves … It is important to note that amplifying positive emotions was relatively more costly to engage in, indicating that controlling emotions in ways that may seem beneficial in the context of caring for children can come at a cost.– Dr. Bonnie Le (lead author), University of Toronto.

One of our very important roles as parents is to nurture our children’s awareness around difficult emotions. What do big feelings look like? How do they feel? What do they mean? How do I deal with them? What about when those messy feelings belong to someone I love? There are plenty of lessons to learn, so it’s a good thing that we have plenty of time to teach them. And that we will be given plenty of opportunities. 

The primary concern of children will always be ‘what about me’. The key then, is to let them see when we feel wobbly, but to let them know that we’ll be okay and so will they. Difficult emotions become threatening when they come with a bagload of unknowns, the biggest one being, ‘What does this mean for me.’ All feelings are important – the bad ones too. They are also unavoidable and part of living a healthy, happy, fulfilled life means knowing how to handle them.

When our children see us being okay with our own messy feelings, it gives them permission to do the same. They won’t have the skills to manage them for a while, and that’s okay. What’s important is that they see that everyone feels bad sometimes and that they have opportunities to learn from how we deal with them.

It is important to measure the intensity of our emotional honesty according to what our children can cope with. Nobody is suggesting that we expose our children to every square inch of our raw and fragile feelings, but the alternative to baring our emotional all doesn’t have to be hiding it. There is middle ground and it’s about the intensity of what we show and the reassurances we give with it. Letting them see that we feel difficult feelings too sometimes, and that we’re okay with that, will help them to expand their their emotional intelligence in terms of their own feelings, other people’s feelings, and how to manage them in a way that lets them thrive.

9 Comments

Katie

Isn’t it funny how the universe sometimes sends us the things we need at appropriate times… I am currently working through some deep-seated issues from my own childhood that relate back to some bizarre ways of dealing with emotions. I think it is so important that we keep the dialogue going on healthy parenting choices so that the next generation doesn’t struggle as significantly with anxiety and depression.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes absolutely! I’m so pleased this article found you when you needed it. It’s such an important conversation to keep having isn’t it.

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marina

Wonderful article. This put words on things I have been sensing without being able to articulate them. I am glad I have been following this instinct, and I will continue to do so. Authenticity has been a leading principle in my life, and the key to any healthy and meaningful relationship, in my opinion. There are areas of my life where I still “put on a smile” systematically and refuse to break down the walls, though, and I guess that’s okay, as long as you don’t keep doing that with people you love. you can’t open up with everyone and at all times, and that’s why true friendships are rare and precious to me.

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Hey Sigmund

Marina you’re so right. Keep following your instincts and letting authenticity be an important part of your relationships. There will be people who don’t see all of you and then the people who do. Let the ones who love you see you fully for who you are. That authenticity will be one of the things that makes you a completely wonderful friend to be with.

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skeeter

This a great and timely article. We have been discussing authenticity a great deal in our family. The greatest gift we can give to ourselves and our children is to discover as a family who we are and not who people want us to be.

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Bridgit

I was just talk with a fellow teacher about how doing this with students seems to get me lots of “credit” (for lack of a better term) with them.

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Natalie

I couldn’t agree more, I came from a family who never discussed feelings and emotions and my father struggled with depression during our childhood and it was something that was never talked about openly. I felt very anxious because intuitively I knew he was suffering. I always felt that we should have helped him through it but it was only until years later that I could fully comprehend what he must of gone through. I think there are a lot of families out there trying to refrain from placing emotional baggage on to their children but this in effect can lead to feeling very disconnected as a family unit. Such a well written peice.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Natalie for sharing this. I imagine it must have been difficult for all of you – for your dad to feel as though he had to keep things to himself and for you because you knew that something wasn’t right but you didn’t know what. This can be a frightening thing for anyone, and certainly for a child or adolescent in relation to a parent. Thankfully we are finding out more and more about how important it is to acknowledge feelings in healthy ways.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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